Clothes Make the Man
1880-1890, 19th century
Gift of the Estate of A. D. Savage
© McCord Museum
Keywords: Coat (40)
Keys to History
The rules dictated that certain styles of clothing were appropriate for different occasions, activities, degrees of formality and times of day. Wealthy men, who could afford to differentiate themselves this way, preserved their social exclusivity by adhering to these rules, which changed over time. Socially ambitious men, unsure of the rules, could refer to the many guides to correct dress that claimed to be authorities on the subject.
One English advice manual warned that if a man "goes to a garden party in a frock-coat and straw hat, he is condemned more universally than if had committed some crime."
Failure to abide by the rules exposed social interlopers at a glance. The frock coat, for example, once considered appropriate anywhere before six in the evening gradually became formal daytime attire by the 1880s. No fashionable man, however bold, would dare to attend an evening ball in his frock coat, even in fashionable grey.
Mrs. Madge Humphry, Manners for Men (London: James Bowden, 1897) [on line]
A New York Clubman, Hints about Men's Dress (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1888).
This grey frock coat was worn by Mr. John George Savage of Montreal in the late 19th century.
The grey frock coat would have been considered correct dress for a promenade in the park. Black or navy was deemed appropriate for more formal activities.
One authority on the rules of dress insisted in 1888 that: "There are only four occasions . . . when frock coats may be worn before noon. These are morning weddings, funerals, Sunday morning church services and before the bar of the higher courts."
Only a man with the requisite black or navy frock coat in his wardrobe would indulge in a grey one.